Reba McEntire and Taylor Swift, seated next to each other on the front row, enthusiastically accepted special trophies from the Academy of Country Music in Nashville on Monday night (Sept. 19). Held at the Ryman Auditorium, the ACM Honors event also celebrated the achievements of Garth Brooks, the Gatlin Brothers, Tom T. Hall, the late Hank Cochran and numerous musicians and industry executives.
The winners were announced in March but were not part of the televised ACM Awards ceremony in April. The ACM Honors event served to honor the recipients properly.
McEntire, who is the longest-serving host of the annual ACM Awards, received her career achievement award following a brief introduction by her close friends, Ronnie Dunn (in person) and George Strait (via video).
Taking the fabled wooden stage, McEntire told the audience, "Thank you for putting up with me all these many, many years."
She recounted an early visit to the Ryman, at just age 7, when her mother took her to a performance of the Grand Ole Opry. She told the crowd, "When I got in this business, I had no clue. I was a third-generation rodeo brat, and coming down here to Nashville was probably one of the scariest things I ever did in my life, but thank God, mama persevered and said, 'Come on, Reba, I'm going to live my dreams through you.'"
After four years of marginal success, the ambitious Oklahoma native landed her first Top 10 country hit in 1980 with "(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven." The breakthrough helped her land a nomination for best new female artist -- although she lost out to Terri Gibbs.
"I didn't win, but I got my foot in the door," she remarked. "I said, 'I want more of this.'"
McEntire remains the most-awarded singer in the ACM's female vocalist category, winning seven times.
"I like being onstage, and I like getting that attention. And that's because I was the third kid out of four kids. I wasn't the youngest. I wasn't the oldest. I wasn't the only boy. But, by golly, I got some attention!" she added.
Earlier in the night, Swift claimed the Jim Reeves International Award on the strength of her Speak Now World Tour. She darted to the stage after a short video depicting her excitable fans in tours stops such as Japan and Norway. After that, Keith Urban praised her in a video message, saying she carries "a great light and a great spirit to people around the world."
Swift told the audience that when she was 17, she decided to bypass college and "was getting ready to go on a different journey." She said opening shows for Strait, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and Kenny Chesney was her "apprenticeship."
After expressing her astonishment that people who don't speak English could still somehow sing along with her lyrics in concert, Swift concluded, "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to study something I wanted to learn about, which is country music."
Neither McEntire nor Swift sang during the event, yet the night was filled with music.
Brooks sent a video message in gratitude for his Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award, an honor that was also personally bestowed to Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers. Brooks' catalog was saluted in song by Rodney Atkins and Jerrod Niemann, while the Gatlins received a tribute from Thompson Square with Randy Houser, the Isaacs and the Oak Ridge Boys.
Longtime artist manager John Dorris accepted the Mae Boren Axton award, presented to industry executives. John Michael Montgomery, a client who called Dorris "my best friend for 20 years," invited him to the stage after songs by Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers, Montgomery Gentry and the Whites. Blake Shelton, a former client, sent his best wishes by a video greeting, saying he didn't know anybody in Nashville who generated more goodwill.
The ceremony spanned about two hours and 45 minutes, with some of the most engaging musical performances coming at the end of the night. As a much-admired songwriter, Tom T. Hall received his Poet's Award following exceptional performances by Buddy Miller on "That's How I Got to Memphis," Jack Ingram on "Faster Horses" and Lee Ann Womack on "Harper Valley, P.T.A." Even from the balcony seats, you could see a glint of mischief in Womack's eyes as she sang the sassy lyrics. The camera flashes were plentiful during her too-brief time in the spotlight.
Veteran broadcaster Ralph Emery gave Hall his award, prompting Hall to tell the audience Emery is on hand to present of all his awards. Hall wryly noted that, hopefully, Emery will speak at his funeral, too, and put an end to it.
Hall, an eloquent, clever songwriter whose nickname is the Storyteller, mostly joked with the audience but turned serious just long enough to say, "We do not wind up standing in a spot like this if you try to do it alone."
Songwriter Hank Cochran, who died in 2010, also received a terrific tribute for his Poet's Award with tributes by Dean Dillon (who sang "The Chair," which they co-wrote), ceremony host Joe Nichols (who offered "Miami, My Amy") and Jamey Johnson (who rendered a medley of "I Fall to Pieces," "Make the World Go Away" and "He's Got You").
Earlier in the night, aspiring country artists Robin Meade and Laura Bell Bundy presented the winners of industry and musician awards. They included Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Eddie Bayers (percussionist/drummer), Glenn Worf (bass), Bryan Sutton (specialty instrument), Tom Bukovac (guitar), Dan Dugmore (steel guitar), Gordon Mote (piano/keyboards), Chuck Ainley (audio engineer) and Paul Worley (producer), Steve "Bogie" Bogdanovich (Don Romeo talent buyer), Sally Williams of the Ryman (promoter), Joe's Bar (nightclub), Mohegan Sun (casino), the Ryman (venue) and Country Strong (Tex Ritter Award for country-related movies).